A stranglehold on culture

April 9, 2023

Afghan musicians in Pakistan are nothing new but this time the threats to their lives and livelihoods are more serious

A stranglehold on culture


fghanistan has been in the news recently, and again for the wrong reasons. A radio station called Sada-i-Banowan in Faizaabad city of Badakhshan province has been banned for airing music in the month of Ramazan. The radio station, it appears, was being run by women or was meant to be only for women.

Women have been a target of the Taliban regime since they took over. Their education and working in the public sphere has been the focus of the regime, provoking adverse reactions from across the world. The cat and mouse game has been on since the days of King Amanullah Khan. The women enjoying more liberties than can be imagined in a conservative society have been pushed into seclusion of the most severe kind. Like Mustafa Kemal Pasha, Raza Shah Pehlawi and Stalin, King Amanullah Khan had thought social modernisation would facilitate other kinds of modernisation.

As far as one knows, despite all the outcry and pressure, the Taliban have not really reneged on or made any changes to their policies regarding women. Music is seen as evil. If it involved women, doubly so.

After the Mujahideen took over power in Afghanistan following the withdrawal of Soviet forces, the arts came under heavy scrutiny. Much was disallowed and disapproved. When the Taliban took over in the 1990s, there was a blanket ban on such activities. Afghan musicians had flocked to Pakistan even during the Soviet occupation on account of the security concerns. When the Taliban took over, they were not allowed to practice. The centre of Afghan music shifted to the city of Peshawar. The music thrived as it catered to the growing Afghan diaspora across the world, particularly in the West. Initially, cassettes and then video tapes were exported in large numbers to aesthetically starving pockets abroad.

Ironically, when the Mutahidda Majlis-i-Amal government was formed in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa during the Musharraf regime, music was banned altogether in the province then known as the North West Frontier Province. The centre of Afghan music or the music of the region thus shifted back to Kabul where Americans had established themselves and were promoting values they thought were vital for the construction of an affirmative social order.

After the Taliban takeover about a year and a half back, the tables were turned again and the musicians, as indeed all artistes and many women, faced hostility for the art, work and gender. Peshawar, as indeed all Pakistan, again became the refuge of the fleeing musicians and artistes as well as a whole lot of other Afghans.

The seesaw has probably continued for centuries in the migration of population for various reasons in the area. This battle between a more conservative lifestyle and a relatively open one has also been going on.

Apparently the radio station was being run by women or only had women airing programmes for women. This was both a positive and a negative thing. There was at least an outlet for women. On the other hand it represented strict segregation. Men and women had their separate spheres and no overlap was allowed. This is at variance with the contemporary view that all tasks can be done by all irrespective of gender, race or ethnicity.

The Afghan music tradition has been a very vibrant one. It draws its strength from the folk forms that have in different variations been there forever. The artistes have suffered in Afghanistan over the past 40 years. They have been forced frequently to migrate, as a first stop to Pakistan and then to the West leaving their families and loved ones behind.

A similar danger lurks in Pakistan as well because a large swathe of population has been made to believe that artistic activity is disapproved of, if not outright sinful. The MMA government and the TTP have tried to impose a puritanical order. It is feared that the similar forces across the border feed each other and strengthen and fortify an ideological dispensation. This hostility towards arts does not stop at music or women, as in the neighbouring countries, it can swarm all artistic expression and encroach on freedoms of expression, which in any case is a contested proposition and not recognised by all as a fundamental right.

Women working for international agencies, including the United Nations, too, have been banned from working in Afghanistan. This has been a visible hardening of an unfortunate policy.

The writer is a culture critic based in Lahore.

A stranglehold on culture